[VIEWPOINT]Moving forward, with hopeProfessor Hwang Woo-suk’s research team recently committed two grave mistakes that at one stroke damaged the dignity of science and technology. These were the violation of research ethics and the falsification of research results. The scholarly lives of those who betrayed ethics and the truth have been fatally damaged to a point where recovery will be impossible, and it seems inevitable that the credibility of Korea’s science community and the country itself will take a significant blow. In particular, the wounds inflicted on the public are a bigger loss than anything else. Korea’s science and engineering community must offer heart-felt apologies to the public for making the fields of science and engineering a great disappointment and betrayal to the Republic of Korea, rather than being the hope of the nation.
In the past few years, our society has been elated by “Hwang Woo-suk syndrome,” just as we were caught up in the wave of the Red Devils during the 2002 World Cup soccer matches. The problem of students avoiding majors in the science and engineering fields, which has been the talk of the town since a few years back, is a big crisis that all in Korea can sympathize with, for we are a country with a lack of natural resources. Therefore, the “Hwang Woo-suk” syndrome, which has broken out at a time when there seemed to be no clear way out and the country was feeling uneasy at this, gave the people even more joy and hope than the World Cup. Thus, many scientists and engineers hesitated to speak out with their opinions on Dr. Hwang’s research. Of course this does not acquit the scientists and engineers, and this is indeed a problem that our science and engineering community should reflect on.
This incident will be recorded as a shameful page in our history. However, some people find hope in the fact that the falsification was exposed by fellow Koreans, not by foreigners, especially our young scientists and engineers. This does not mean, however, that our scientists and engineers, with the exception of the young scientists, are accustomed to a culture of falsification, and think it is okay to disregard research ethics. As scientific developments are achieved because scientists question, supplement and sometimes even deny existing theories and rules, all theses naturally go through a process of internal verification in the science and engineering community. Therefore, it is unavoidable that lies will be revealed sooner or later.
It is also true, however, that the road up to that point is a long and hard one. Also, if it weren’t for the anonymity of the Internet, the stir caused by Dr. Hwang could have developed in a totally different manner. This writer, while holding the posts of president of the graduate school student association of the Korean Advanced Institute of Tech-nology (KAIST) and a member of the management committee of the Korean Association of Science and Engineering, tried to find cases of corruption or structural oxymoron, but had a lot of trouble doing so. The punishment on whistle blowers is much harsher in the fields of science and engineering than in other fields. It can never be easy for people to inform on the wrongdoings of others when it could not only mean expulsion from one organization but a situation where one must brave the danger of being expelled from academic circles permanently. On top of that, considering the reality where a graduate student takes on the role of a researcher and a scholar than that of a student, it might be natural that their youth and passion didn’t contribute much to exposing wrongdoings inside the science community.
The problems revealed are not simple ones that can easily be solved by establishing a system that verifies the truth of a thesis, or by strengthening ethics awareness. I am sure that scientists and engineers working in the field are all aware of this. The reason why problems in the field were not clearly relayed to society was because we did not get involved with the problems enough ourselves.
Isn’t it worth mustering up a little courage? There are so many problems that should be addressed, including the rational planning and transparent selection of research problems, precise evaluation of results, appropriate treatment of scientists and engineers including contract researchers and graduate students and the establishment of a proper national innovation system. These are problems that scientists and engineers should take the lead in solving, just like the problem of the stem cell research thesis.
Fellow scientists and engineers, let’s move our attention from looking at the errors in one or two theses to the overall system of science and engineering. Let’s speak out boldly of the problems that we harbor in our minds and try to sort them out. Otherwise, the fundamental lesson of this commotion will be forgotten again. Let’s not forget the pain we are going through now and move forward diligently so that we can be remembered as the proud leaders of reform in the fields of science and technology. After all, we definitely have hope, don’t we?
* The writer is a member of the executive committee of the Korean Association of Science and Engineering. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chung Woo-sung